Thursday, 14 January 2016

The Danish Girl - now seen and heard - and yes, I cried too

I'm not kidding about those wet eyes. I challenge anyone to see The Danish Girl and not be affected by it. I saw it yesterday evening with two friends, one of them trans, one not. I saw it mostly because I'd been urged to (though not by these particular friends, who simply came with me for company). But I am glad that I made the effort.

The film does tell a compelling love story, which ends in tragedy - so it is inherently emotional - but it also presents the story of a trans woman sensitively - and in an adult context, not simply as something that young children or teenagers might go through.

I thought it was well-cast too. Here is a list of the main characters.

Eddie Redmayne as Einar Wegener, admired landscape artist, devoted husband, slightly hesitant but fun lover, who by degrees changes into alter-ego Lili Elbe.

Alicia Vikander as Einar's wife Gerda, also an artist, but at the start of the film not yet getting much success for her portrait painting, who has to cope with the emerging Lili.

Matthias Shoenaerts as Hans Asgil, a childhood friend of Einar's - whom Einar once kissed - but now a an established Parisian art dealer, well-off, urbane, a little wolfish, but nevertheless loyal and caring.

Ben Whishaw as Henrik, a carefully-closeted gay man who represents a 'safe' and gentle social companion for Lili as the film progresses, though it is short of being a full physical relationship.

Sebastian Koch as Dr Kurt Warnekros, a pioneering sexoligist and surgeon in Dresden - clearly humane, sympathetic and high-minded, who is approached late in the film, and offers Lili a high-risk set of operations that will transform her body's appearance and functionality from that of a man into that of a woman.

Most of the film is focussed on the interplay between these characters, chiefly between Lili and Gerda. But there are important subplots going on.

One is what happens between Lili and Henrik. Henrik meets Lili at the reception that is her first public appearance, her first proper test of passing. Much to Lili's surprise and consternation, she attracts the attention of more than one eligible man, but ends up being lured aside and deliciously kissed by Henrik, for whom she represents a strange fascination. The incident follows on from an earlier one in which Lili - not yet so named - is asked by an unsuspecting Gerda (whose art model has not turned up) to don silk stockings and heeled shoes, and hold a gorgeous silk dress over 'Einar's' formal male clothing, so that a painting can be completed on time. At first reluctant to co-operate, Einar becomes spellbound by the texture of the fabric and the transformation bestowed on his legs, and something that might have stayed buried is awakened. Now Henrik gives her a glimpse of what a woman's emotional and sensual life might be like. From that point there is really no turning back: the genie is out of the bottle.

Another is what happens between Gerda and Hans. Hans is a kind man, concerned for both Einar' and Gerda, but it's plain that he recognises early on where Lili is going, and sees himself picking up the pieces where Gerda is concerned. They never actually make love - though it's a close-run thing - for Gerda is desperately loyal to Einar (despite the tensions threatening their still-childless but otherwise close and companionable marriage) and then (gradually) to the woman she tearfully acknowledges that Einar really is, and needs to become in full. In the end it doesn't matter to Gerda what Lili looks like, or wants to be, she remains the chief human being in Gerda's life. It's telling that as the film proceeds, Gerda stops saying 'Einar' and calls her beloved only 'Lili'. Hans observes all this. Hans is her safety net: the proverbial badly-needed strong arm around Gerda's shoulders, as Einar slips away.

I don't want to spoil the film for anyone who hasn't yet seen it, so I won't discuss very much more about the plot. I will but say that - in my view at least - this is a compelling film that anyone can enjoy. It's most definitely not the usual trans fare. But I do think it takes the general image of trans people to another level. A very timely thing, if you caught the headlines of the Trans Equality Report out today.

Mind you, you must bear in mind the following points:

# Some of the true-life story of Lili Elbe has been pared away for the sake of achieving simplicity of narration and enhanced dramatic impact. That's forgiveable, in the context of making a watchable film. Let it be a reason for looking up the extra details that the film has omitted.

# Some inventions have been introduced. But again, in the context of the film as a whole, this is forgivable. It's like - say - comparing the three-part book version of JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings with the astonishingly good (and just as moving) three-part film version. In that case, the film - despite its liberties - brings to vivid life the main and best-loved scenes in the book, with all their power, and the smaller discrepancies do not matter.

What major impressions or perplexities did I come away with?

# Eddie Redmayne was an absolute natural for the part, a slim male actor with a woman's face. The shape of his face, including his eyes and lips, were just right. His movements were fluid, too. The era dealt with by the film (late 1920s and early 1930s) was one in which women's fashions favoured tallness, a flat chest and tolerated a certain mannishness in the planes of the face. The social scene was still formal, and women were still well covered up. These things assisted Eddie Redmayne's portrayal. But I have to say that, in any case, he looked and sounded very convincing as a woman of the time, and the portrayal goes through subtle changes and improvements as the film progresses. It's no surprise that Lili is accepted as 'one of the girls' at the department store she gets a job at. Nor that, recovering from her first operation at Dresden later on, she falls into natural conversation with a natal woman as they discuss having children.

# This is only my own view, but I think the character of most interest to me - the one I identified with, and was most drawn to - was Gerda. If Eddie Redmayne was good, Alicia Vikander was terrific! From the outset, one could almost take the story of Lili Elbe as a given. But how would Gerda react? What would she do? Eyes were immensely important in the film. All the main characters had expressive eyes, but none more so than Gerda's; and hers were the most over-brimmimg with tears. I felt my own over-brimming with her. You could feel her anguish so acutely. And because of this, because the theme of 'love enduring through so much' is so dominant, I would say that this is most definitely a 'woman's film'. More so perhaps than it is a 'trans film', although it is of course that too.

# Formal occasions apart, strict clothing conventions hardly exist now in the modern world, allowing all kinds of perfectly acceptable gender-fluid attire. No such overt gender variant expression was possible around 1930. Dress was much more gender-specific than now - suits on one hand, dresses on the other. There was no 'safe' unisex clothing. Lili could not have compromised with a T-shirt and jeans, worn with the kind of hair and trinkets that men (or women) could get away with from, say, 1970. One couldn't be quietly ambiguous. There is a scene in the film where, in a vain, experimental and one-off attempt to keep her femininity in check, Lili goes for a stroll in a distinctly effeminate 'male' outfit and gets roughed up for her pains, because she has been mistaken for a gay man of the period, which she was not. Sympathetic and accepting Hans cleans her up. She does not repeat the mistake. I'm struck by the undoubted advance in social attitudes between 1930 and now that make it distinctly less likely that anyone will be set upon if they want to dress in an out-of-the-ordinary way. (At least in the places I go to: you may be stuck with a backward locality)

# Lili used a name acquired by accident! That seems odd for something so intensely personal. I think I am right in saying that one of the greatest pleasures of taking a transition forward is the business of self-naming. It's also a significant privilege. And yet, although already aware of the woman within while still leading a male life, Einar had not named that woman, and left her anonymous, even though he apparently regarded her as a separate personality: 'not Einar'. And yet most if not all modern trans people I've come across know what their 'real name' is, even if they might be very circumspect about revealing it. It took a female visitor to the studio, catching Einar modelling in those silk stockings, to dub him 'Lili'. And the 'Elbe' surname was hastily invented at the Dresden hospital admission desk, soon after Lili had arrived by the rail bridge over that river. That seems so casual, and I don't get it. I'd want to chose my own name myself. And take time and care over it.

# I wasn't the only one among the three of us to feel dissatisfied that Lili completely abandoned her painting. Gerda - as she pointed out - was both a woman and an artist. But the art seemed to drain away from Lili, leaving a figure wholly concerned with developing her identity and nothing much more. Perhaps that was natural, and the feeling for artistic expression would have returned if she had lived. I hope so!

And where did I cry most? I had wet cheeks when farewells were said at Paris, when Lili boarded the train for Dresden and her first operation. And then another overflow at the very end, when the scarf was taken by the wind, the scarf that had been passed between Gerda and Lili like a love-baton, and in the end represented Lili's spirit set free.

The film said in silence that Gerda painted Lili from her imagination for the rest of her life. She could never forget her. I'm crying as I type that too. I have a changed world also, and a lost love irretrievable, irreplaceable and unforgettable. Maybe you too. Let's share the tears.


  1. Dearest Film reviewer, I decided to reread your review before attempting a very rare blog update after seeing the film today. May still do it but it will be nothing like as thorough as yours, tears flowed freely at those very same scenes.

    1. Ooooops, Thought it was not quite like the film post I remembered...

  2. It's OK, Coline! Your own review was better by far.


    1. A bit different, lets call it a draw...


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